“Put yourself in my place,” says the well-dressed African American man (L. Peter Callendar as Sterling North), surrounded by canvases of early Modern art that are punctuated by an occasional African mask—as he delivers a careful, frank but controlled account of how he was pulled over by a suburban cop for “no apparent reason” and asked for the registration for his new Jaguar, the first morning he drove to his new job as director of the prestigious (if eccentric) galleries of the Morris Foundation.
It’s a kind of prologue to Thomas Gibbons’ play, Permanent Collection, at the Aurora. An anecdote on perspective and repeated social experience would seem a good preface to a play on art and racial controversy; the drama presents itself a little as an unfortunate accident of misunderstanding, a bit more as an inevitable collision between mutually uncomprehending types, as the events unfold in a quiet, luminous sanctuary of art.
The antagonists are North, who, after a career in the corporate world, has been chosen to direct the Morris by the black university, the founder’s will- appointed trustee, and Paul Barrow (Tim Kniffen), who has spent his adult life at the Morris, regarding himself as a kind of protégé of the founder, and who directs the educational program.
The disparity between the two is emphasized by their appearance and their mannerisms. And both are finally stripped down to knee-jerk, almost Pavlovian reactions to what each regards as slights—racial, professional and personal—from the other.
It’s really something of a sad, institutional romance gone sour—a triangle, with Barrow, the scholar who wants things to stay as intimate as they are; North the dynamic force for change and expansion into the public world and Gillian Crane (Melissa Gray), the reporter for the ‘B’ section of the city paper, searching for controversy in the quiet suburbs, who gets Barrow’s indignant leaks into print, as well as North’s heated ripostes.
To make the polar controversy a little more 360 in degree, Gibbons has tipped in North’s young African American administrative assistant, Kanika Weaver (admirably portrayed by Karen Aldridge), who befriends Barrow as kind of a mentor and gets caught in the middle. Kanika’s able to articulate less hardline, less positional views of a different generation, yet the role is clearly one created with that in mind, the relationship with Barrow a made-up one.
Margarette Robinson plays Ella Franklin, the longtime (and only) African American staffer (the founder’s administrative assistant) when North arrives and the figure of continuity when the dust settles. And the founder himself, Dr. Morris is nicely presented by Robert Hamm, alternately a mischievous, overgrown schoolboy curmudgeon, snickering over his constant swipes at the academic and museum worlds.
The play consists in great part of monologues and soliloquies. The Aurora production features fine acting and, overall, solid direction from Robin Stanton, plus good design from Richard Olmstead, Jon Retsky, Chris Houston, and Rebecca Ann Valentino (for set, lighting, sound and costume).
The collaborative effort goes a ways toward fleshing out a play that’s professionally written, about real issues lucidly stated, fictionally expanded from the controversies surrounding the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, to touch on the deeper contradictions in our society, between equality and racial (and class) identity, public and private life, and art versus comprehension in a culture of self-expression.
But Gibbons’ play just lays the groundwork, in itself a somewhat institutional discussion “about” art, race, society. With all its admirable intentions, it doesn’t penetrate much beneath the surface of The News, into what Aristotle called “dramatic action,” that crux of a human situation which, put on a stage before an audience, anatomizes the wellsprings of existence and change.